URSULA, UNDER by Ingrid Hill


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Hill (Dixie Church Interstate Blues, stories, not reviewed) lards 2,500 years of history and misery onto the 17-hours-and-27-minutes-long drama of a little girl's rescue from a mineshaft.

“It is Monday, June 9, 2003,” the omniscient narrator informs us. “Our story begins long before, if we believe that all back story is also story, that the underside of the iceberg explains what we see above.” You have been warned: connections will be made, moral lessons will be underscored, the small niceties of the well-made novel will be disdained. The author introduces us to an appealing young family—Annie Maki, Justin Wong, and their two-and-a-half-year-old daughter Ursula—and sets up a strongly emotional premise as Ursula vanishes down a hole in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Hill then sends us back to China in the 3rd century b.c., beginning a saga that will unfold in 8th-century Finland, 17th-century Canada and Sweden, and 19th-century California, delving into the experiences of the Finnish and Chinese immigrants to America whose blood flows in Ursula’s veins, with a few chapters interpolated to remind us she’s still underground. Reminiscent of Annie Proulx's Accordion Crimes in its relentless catalogue of disasters and willingness to yank readers away from characters just as they're beginning to engage our interest, the narrative aims to make a political point as women are abused, workers die due to companies’ negligence, and rich brat Jinx Muehlenberg hits ten-year-old Annie with her car and speeds away, crippling the girl for life. The fact that Jinx later makes a pass at Justin while he’s working on her house is practically the least outlandish coincidence in a story crammed with unlikely conjunctions. Why does all this madness sometimes work? Because Hill’s prose is vivid, if undisciplined, and her passion is ultimately contagious. The cumulative impact of all those ancestors’ stories adds an epic grandeur and surprising emotional punch to the finale, when Hill finally deigns to allow us to follow step by step the painstaking effort to bring Ursula out of the shaft.

Wildly uneven, awesomely ambitious: a mess, in fact, but you can’t help but be impressed by the author’s commitment and boldness.

Pub Date: June 11th, 2004
ISBN: 1-56512-388-3
Page count: 400pp
Publisher: Algonquin
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 2004


by Julia Anderson